Religion and Decline of the Absolutism – The Stuarts

1625 doesn’t sound like a significant year in history, but in fact it is the start of a century of rebellions and revolutions that shaped the political system we have in Britain today.

This is because in1625 Charles I married a Catholic, kicking off a fight against absolutism in Britain.

Religion wasn’t of course the only reason but a key and perhaps the most important reason the country transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

The Stuart dynasty had always been Catholic – but it was something somewhat set aside when Elisabeth I, a devout Protestant, made James I and IV her heir. Scotland adopted Protestantism as its main religion in 1560 so there didn’t seem to be a problem.

But then his son married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, remained friendly with the Catholic nations such as Spain and became increasingly autocratic in his religious policies, using the Star Chamber to harshly punish religious dissidents.

Moreover, he strongly believed in the Catholic doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. For Charles, he was only answerable to God, as God appoints the monarch.

Unfortunately for Charles, everyone in the Kingdom, particularly parliament and many nobles, expected to hold the King to account, as they had done with his predecessors.

The idea of a monarch who not only had questionable loyalties but refused to be held accountable politically and religiously is a worrisome one.

The English Civil war was sparked due to Charles’s heavy-handed religious policies. First the Scottish in 1639 rebelled after Archbishop Laud attempted to impose the Anglican book of prayer, followed by the Irish two years later. The English lastly took up arms against their King, led by the Puritans.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the Stuarts hadn’t learned from their father’s mistakes. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Catholic which served to stir up theories amongst disgruntled protestants such as the ‘Popish plot’ – that she had been employed by the Pope to poison Charles so that his Catholic brother James could take the throne.

Moreover, his popularity quickly faded due to his extravagant lifestyle. Many of Charles’ favourites at court were Catholics, who were all expelled after a Test Act passed in 1673 banning Catholics from taking public office. He didn’t produce any legitimate heirs, meaning the throne would fall to his brother.

John Morrill, a historian who has extensively studied religious absolutism as cause for decline of the monarchy, views Charles as a ‘Secret Catholic’, a theory stemming from his close diplomacy with France, a very Catholic nation, and the fact when he died, he was received back into the Catholic Church.

Image credit: Coventry City Council via Creative Commons. 

James II’s reign was the final nail in the coffin for religious absolutism. A militant Roman Catholic, according to Morrill, advocating to repeal penal laws asserting Anglicanism was superior to Catholicism, appointed Catholics to public office and allowed the Papal Legate to visit for the first time since Henry VIII’s reign.

All of this culminated in the Bill of Rights of 1689, effectively banned Catholics from taking the throne, as it served to criticise the former King’s religious policies, stating he, “ … did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”, whilst “By assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending of laws and the execution of laws without the consent of Parliament”. It is this Bill of Rights that began our transition to a constitutional monarchy.

The focus on Stuart Dynasty isn’t their Catholicism, more their wilful ignorance of and their desire for absolute power. Catholicism at the time was very much associated with absolute power and the unwillingness to govern fairly and properly.

Their marriages to non-Anglicans as shown with Charles I and both of his sons further increased distrust by MPs who assumed these Catholic spouses would endeavour to continue a Catholic dynasty in which the country was ruled by the Divine Right of the monarch.

Every generation seemed to look back and assume they could achieve what the one before could not – absolute control over the Kingdom using a Catholic doctrine in a Protestant nation.

Their inability to evolve strategically or religiously meant the ultimate decline of absolutism. 

Michaela Makusha


Sources

Morrill, John, The Nature of the English Revolution: Studies in Religion and Politics, 1603-42 (1992)

John Morrill, The Sensible Revolution (1991) https://www.historytoday.com/archive/civil-wars The Civil Wars by Sarah Mortimer

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